T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Big name show full of rich enjoyment

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Georges Seurat's A Study for Une Baigne. Photo / Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Georges Seurat's A Study for Une Baigne. Photo / Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Brushwork brings much-copied works to life in delightful display.

At the galleries
What: Degas to Dali, from the National Galleries of Scotland
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, to June 10
TJ says: An exciting exhibition that encapsulates much of 20th-century art and its precedents


The grand exhibition Degas to Dali at the Auckland Art Gallery is not to be missed. It comes from the National Galleries of Scotland and contains many of the big names you find in the coffee-table books. It is a marvellous opportunity to see works by famous artists close up, and see the reality of the handling of paint instead of the glossy surface of a reproduction.

The early part of the show is so full of the rich enjoyment of landscape and colourful people that it is hard to remember many were done in turbulent times.

A reminder of revolutionary politics parallel to revolutionary art is The Barricade, a lithograph by Edward Manet. He is usually remembered as the first of the Impressionists with the flourish of his brushwork, his colour and his focus on everyday life, as the poet and critic Baudelaire had demanded.

The lithograph in black and white shows an execution in the streets of Paris. When the Prussian army encircled the city in 1871, the battle against the besiegers was helped by a commune of the working classes. When a peace treaty was signed, the conservative government in Versailles ordered the army to destroy the communards.

Manet had fought with the National Guard and returned to Paris in time to see some of the atrocities. His drawing of a line of soldiers shooting ragged communards, Frenchmen killing Frenchmen, has the grim feeling of being done on the spot.

Gustave Courbet was a supporter of the Commune and had to flee to Switzerland in the aftermath. Here, his painting of a wave is a brilliant piece of work, but there is a dark heart to the curve of The Wave and a heavy sky that makes it an intense and portentous painting.

The same room has the rhythmically colourful patterns of Degas' paintings of dancers, and a reminder of his talents as a portrait painter with his portrait of the Italian writer Diego Martelli. There is also a passionately painted Van Gogh, Olive Trees, and, less familiar, a confidently drawn and character-filled study of a young Dutch woman in traditional dress.

Further on, it would be easy to overlook the lovely little painting on a panel by Georges Seurat. He is mostly known for his large canvases such as the monumental Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte, which is in Chicago, or Bathers by the Seine in the National Gallery in London. This tiny sketch of the boys who worked the river barges, resting and washing their horses, is a preliminary to the London painting. It is remarkable for the vivid rendering of the bright sunlight and the way the industrial district by the Seine is included as well as the picturesque bathing spot.

You have to go as far as Room 6 before you find another industrial scene in L.S. Lowry's Canal and Factories that is the essence of England's industrial Midlands. Small, dark figures move in a space defined by plain factory buildings and tall, smoking chimneys. The quality of the paint and the subtle colours in the sky are hard to pick in reproduction.

One work that is almost beyond photographic reproduction is a still-life by Sir William Nicholson, now remembered mostly for his prints. It is simply a silver bowl and some peas on a table. The thing that is splendid about this work is the light reflected in the polished interior of the bowl. It is created by one virtuoso stroke of the brush and works perfectly.

A feature of the show is the colourful work of Scottish Colourists. They are the next generation that carried on the work of the pioneering group called the Glasgow Boys who brought Impressionism to Scotland. That group included James Nairn who came to New Zealand.

The work shown here is enormously indebted to Matisse. The only work by Matisse himself in the exhibition is a contribution by the Auckland gallery of three black and white lino cuts. The first of these is a wonderfully elegant, rhythmic depiction of the celebrated Pasiphae of Cretan legend.

Yet Matisse's great influence was in colour. This concern for intense colour seems to have bypassed England but produced rich painting in Scotland. In the Portrait of Anne Estelle Rice by John Duncan Fergusson, done in 1911, the green shadow on the face is pure Matisse, as seen in a revolutionary painting the older master did in 1905 called Portrait with a Green Stripe.

The same sort of intense colour is found in the portrait by Alexej Jawlensky, the Russian painter who went to Germany and became a member of the Blue Rider group, and who had worked with Matisse in France.

Colour is often a problem even for a gifted painter such as Stanley Spenser, whose work is in the last room. Yet there is a surprise in this room: Figure Study I by Francis Bacon. In this early ferocious painting, the colour is exactly suited to the subject. On one side there is an acid orange that is strong but sour. The piece is dominated by a figure in a tweedy overcoat. The right sleeve that is a strong vertical in the centre is painted with great authority. The man, obviously dead drunk, has collapsed with his head buried in a vase of flowers. The desire for oblivion is tragically apparent. The way that someone has tossed the man's hat back to front on his head adds to the effect.

This rich show is full of delight and sombreness.

- NZ Herald

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